Unchaining the chain of command: Growing fire department potential with a new model

The ultimate goal of the High-Performance Organization model is to have more problem-finders AND more problem-solvers


The chain of command is as synonymous with the fire service as bushy moustaches and leather helmets. However, take a moment and ask yourself, “Are the processes and procedures in my organization designed to get the most out of our team members, or are they instead serving to stifle them?”

Consider this insight from author and business executive Jack Welch. In his book “Winning,” Welch recounts a conversation with a middle-aged appliance worker. The gentlemen conveyed to Welch, “For 25 years, you paid for my hands when you could have had my brain as well – for nothing.” Further, as Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini chronicle in their book “Humanocracy,” “While companies like Amazon and Intuit recognize the value of bottom-up innovation, most organizations don’t.”

Now, before sending me hate mail, I will concede that the chain of command is effective in many situations and does serve a purpose. However, it doesn’t serve every purpose. The bureaucracy, rigid chain of command, and overabundance of standard operating procedures and guidelines (SOP/SOGs) found in most fire service organizations seem to exist more out of tradition than effectiveness. It is “the way we’ve always done it,” and it hearkens back to a time (around the turn of the 20th century) when “Taylorism” was at its peak.

For the HPO model to work, it is important for all members to feel comfortable asking questions or communicating their ideas, concerns and frustrations.
For the HPO model to work, it is important for all members to feel comfortable asking questions or communicating their ideas, concerns and frustrations. (Photo/Courtesy of Joe Pennino)

Pushing back on bureaucracy

Frederick Taylor’s Scientific Management model focused on standardization, time and motion studies, the elimination of waste, productivity, and a high level of managerial oversight. In the name of efficiency, employees were taught how to do a small number of things well and then were effectively pigeonholed into that function. The job of “thinking” was left up to management. While this may be efficient, it is easy to see the problems that might arise when treating employees like cogs in a machine. Policies, no matter how well-written, will never be able to counter an actively disengaged workforce created by ineffective organizational structures.

It isn’t that no one has ever tried to change this. As early as the 1960s, New Public Administration (NPA) advocates began to condemn bureaucracy, and there have been several proposed remedies, including privatization, quality improvement, total quality management and outsourcing, to name a few. Nevertheless, none of these strategies were effective in providing a sustained improvement in government performance.

HPO: A new model emerges

Let’s fast forward and look at a model that is quite contrary to Taylorism. The High-Performance Organization (HPO) model is a conceptual framework that attempts to achieve improved and sustainable organizational performance. Led by some of the most successful organizations, many businesses and government agencies alike are transitioning to the HPO model in order to harness the full range of talents, skills and abilities possessed by their workforce.

While there are many components to the HPO model, chief among them include an operational flattening of the organization, the expectation of leadership at every level, 360-degree communication, teamwork and collaboration. Essentially, it is the stark alternative to the traditional sluggish, sterile, hierarchical and red-tape wrapped chain of command. In this model, rank becomes less important, everyone’s ideas and input are equally valued, and time is spent engaging and developing members in an effort to increase organizational ownership.

Putting HPO into practice

So, what does this actually look like in a modern, multi-hazard fire service organization? First, the department needs to have a shared organizational vision or destination. According to author Simon Sinek, “Average companies give their people something to work on. In contrast, the most innovative organizations give their people something to work toward.” Now, this next concept may seem obvious, but it is much easier to “share” in a common vision when you’ve had input in creating it. This is where the HPO philosophy uses microbusinesses.

Essentially, a microbusiness serves to pull information and ideas together from all the different parts of an organization that may be impacted by a decision. If this sounds a lot like a committee, you’d be right. There is an old aphorism that states “committees are cul-de-sacs where ideas go to die.” It is true that committees (if mismanaged) can suffer from infighting, mission creep, and be more languorous than the chain of command. However, if managed properly (with clear goals, objectives, rules of engagement and with the best interest of the organization in mind), they can serve to provide diverse opinions and perspectives and give a voice to each member of the department.

After a vision or “destination” is established and widely communicated, a road map is developed. During the journey, each detour, each stop, each initiative undertaken, and each new idea is evaluated to determine if it moves the organization closer to the destination and aligns with its vision or if is merely a distraction. However, this is not done by a select few at the top of the organization, but rather transparently, with input from a diverse representation of all the stakeholders within the organization.

These microbusinesses or committees can be developed to work on almost anything, including uniforms, apparatus design, policies, deployment methods, how new recruits are trained, purchasing priorities and which new initiatives to tackle. In most cases, those who work closest to and are most impacted by the “thing” the committee is meeting about have the best insight to offer. In fact, Simon Sinek claims that, “The responsibility of leadership is not to come up with all the great ideas, but to create an environment in which great ideas can happen.” I have seen great results when firefighters have input on items like apparatus design, equipment, uniforms, turnout gear, how to streamline processes, and who should serve on their peer support team. The ultimate goal is to have more problem-finders AND more problem-solvers.

Employee input and 360-degree communication

Employee engagement in the form of providing input, taking the initiative to solve problems, and committee participation is one aspect of a healthy organization. Communication (as we all know) is another, and it is essential to the HPO philosophy. Without it, rumors become rampant and morale suffers. However, the chain of command can become an impediment to effective communication. Therefore, it cannot be relied upon solely.

For the HPO model to work, it is important for all members to feel comfortable asking questions or communicating their ideas, concerns and frustrations. In my opinion, phone calls, text messages and emails from any member of the organization should be encouraged. However, if a chief officer receives a phone call that is purposefully meant to undermine a supervisor, the chief officer should explain the proper protocol to the team member and redirect them to the appropriate person. Otherwise (just like in all relationships), healthy organizations should have open lines of communication.

Additionally, chief officers of every rank should portion out a part of their schedule to visit with personnel in a casual and unhurried manner, and even jump a call or two with them if the opportunity presents itself. While there are plenty of things that vie for our time, this is a part of the job that can’t be overlooked. Again, this is a way to close the gap, flatten the organization, and hear about successes and concerns that wouldn’t normally reach the upper levels of the chain of command. Also, it humanizes our organization by allowing us to catch personnel doing something right, get to know our team members better, and for them to get to know us.

Recent circumstances have uncovered another effective means of communication. Video conferencing allows department leadership to partner with city administration, union leadership and others in order to address the entire organization on a regular basis and talk about initiatives, current events and to address concerns. Furthermore, it allows for those watching to ask questions either beforehand or in real time. Finally, members of the beforementioned microbusinesses can use all of these techniques to frequently address the organization and keep them apprised of their committees’ progress.

Building member investment and contribution

At the end of the day, all of us want to have a say in the decisions that impact us, and we want to be communicated with and kept informed. The HPO model is an inclusive approach to decision-making and solving organizational problems. Some of the results include more engaged and productive team members as well as increased morale. Employee motivation (instead of being linked solely to pay and other self-interested motives) becomes based on an identity with the department, meeting team goals, and the amount of influence each team member has on the decisions being made within the organization. After all, as Sinek puts it, “When people are financially invested, they want a return. When people are emotionally invested, they want to contribute.”

[Read next: High-potential employees: Emerging leaders on the move]

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